Mister Rogers was in my neighborhood and don’t think I lost any time meeting him at the Ritz-Carlton Huntington Hotel. I joined him for a buffet breakfast along with David Newell, public relations director for the show--and who plays Mr. McFeely--and Bill Isler, president of Family Communications Inc., which produces “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
They were all here because just the night before, Mister Rogers had received a lifetime achievement award during the annual Television Critics Assn. awards ceremonies. “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” is the longest-running show on PBS.
“You just do what you can with the best that you have,” was how Mister Rogers, 69, quietly explained his children’s show, which is going into its 30th year. It is taped in Pittsburgh, where Mister Fred Rogers and his wife, Joanne, live. They have been married since 1952, have two sons and two grandsons.
Question: What were you like as a kid?
Answer: I was very fat until I was 12 and then I grew taller.
Q: And thinned out along the way. How tall are you?
A: Six foot. You know, I get weighed before I go into the pool and most of the time it’s 143 and I think that’s so curious.
Q: How so?
A: That’s one way of telling kids I love you. 1-4-3.
He demonstrated that the numbers correspond with the number of characters in each word. He held up one finger for “I,” four fingers for “love,” three for “you.”
Q: How often do you swim?
A: Every day between 7 and 8:30 before work. I swim 25 minutes hard and this is in a 75-foot [athletic-club] pool. I used to swim at the lunch break, but that was too discombobulating for the schedule maker.
Q: And how long have you been doing this exercise?
A: Thirty to 35 years. And I like people to tell me if there’s something I can do that’s better than what I’m doing. For instance, one of the guards is so generous with his knowledge of swimming. He told me, “You’re wasting a lot of energy on your back stroke.” I just love this. I said, “Well, what can I do?” He said, “Keep your feet under the water when you kick. You’re wasting a lot by splashing.” Well, it makes such a difference. So I said, “Bob, can you imagine how many people think of you as they’re swimming because you are so generous with your understanding of it?” It spreads.
Mister Rogers spread his hands above the table to show how a good deed continues, concentric wave-wise.
Q: Is this what you usually eat for breakfast--cereal with berries, banana and yogurt? And a muffin?
A: I think it had a little chocolate on the top. It was good. I don’t think too much about what I eat, you know.
Q: Well, what do you normally have at home?
A: Hot cranberry juice. I don’t drink coffee or tea. I just warm up the juice in the microwave. And granola with banana on top and skim milk. That’s breakfast. Lunch is yogurt and cheese or wheat crackers. You know, the first day we were here. . . . Should I tell her about Arthur?
Q: Who’s Arthur?
A: A good friend of ours who moved out to California and what he did was to bring two pans of prune whip--gave it to us right at that table down there.
Q: That was nice of him.
A: Wasn’t it? I ate one whole pan in the hotel room. Bill thought I’d explode.
Q: Mister Rogers, you don’t mean to be funny, do you? You are, you know.
A: I love whimsy, don’t you? If you’re going to be working for children, you need to do your best not to lose your childlikeness. It’s wonderful to be able to just be yourself. You didn’t get your strawberries. Do you still want some? I’ll get them.
Mister Rogers excused himself, returned to the buffet table, where he scooped up a bowlful of strawberries and returned to fill my plate. “Oops. I’m serving on the wrong side.” He scooted to my left and served the strawberries.
Q: Thank you.
A: When I was a kid my grandmother would say that instead of half the price, buffets should charge twice for children because I would always have four or five desserts.
Q: What’s a favorite besides prune whip?
A: Strawberry rhubarb pie.
Q: My grandmother used to make that. What about dinner?
A: I love pasta, mostly angel hair. And vegetables and lentil burgers. People often ask me about the vegetarian business. I think that I was a vegetarian long before it was fashionable, about 40 years ago. I just don’t eat anything that had a mother, that’s all.
Roger and Bill began to talk about Mister Rogers’ health projects for children, including what to expect at the doctor’s office. Mister Rogers listened for a while and then spoke softly:
“Candace, wouldn’t you have liked in the middle of the night to know how easy certain people were going to be to talk with?”
“Then you could have gone to sleep easier. Well, I think we sometimes forget that children need to be told.”
It occurred to me that I hadn’t propped my elbows on the table or spilled anything, for that matter. Mister Rogers sang:
I’d like to be told if it’s going to hurt
If it’s not going to hurt, I’d like to be told
I’d like to be told if you’re going away
When you’re coming back and how long you will stay,
I’d like to be told.
It helps me to get ready for all those things that are new.
I trust you more and more each time
That I’m finding those things to be true.
I’d like to be told because I’m trying to grow
And I’m trying to learn
And I’m trying to know.
And I’d like to be told . . .
“I sing that to the children to help them see some of the things that they might experience at a doctor’s visit,” he said.
I had read that there wasn’t a dry eye in the room when Mister Rogers accepted his lifetime achievement award.
Good, I thought. I wasn’t the only one.
Guest Workout runs Mondays in Health.